Melissa d’Arabian is the Next Food Network Star, following last year’s successful winner Aaron McCargo Jr.

After “the most difficult decision we have ever had,” as judge Bob Tuschman said, Melissa d’Arabian became the fifth Next Food Network Star, beating Jeffrey Saad. Her new show, Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa d’Arabian, will debut Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

That’s a different title and concept from her pilot, the Kitchen Survival Guide, which was produced and broadcast along with Jeffrey’s Ingredient Smuggler as part of the finale. After both aired, judge Bob Tuschman said his “greatest complement” to Jeffrey was “I get so hungry” when watching, while Susie Fogelson called him “just flawless.” Bob said Melissa moved from “flustered” to a “confident, poised, determined star,” and Susie pointed out that Melissa offered lots of knowledge. That’s what I like about her; I felt like I was learning something but not being condescended to, despite her fake-ish smile. Jeffrey, however, never felt as genuine or authentic in his cheerfulness, and I wasn’t ever feeling his food. But my favorite was Debbie, who was eliminated last week, alas.

Atypically for the show, we didn’t hear why she actually won and Jeffrey lost, but Bob elaborates on his blog, saying “Melissa’s personality ‘popped’ more for me than Jeffrey’s did,” although he wrote that he remains “a huge fan of Jeffrey’s. He’s a class act and has a huge fan base.”

Speaking of Bob, I met and talked with him last week at a Food Network gathering for TV critics, where the cast of The Next Iron Chef made dinner (alas, it wasn’t a challenge where we got to fill out comment cards). He’s half of my favorite part of the show, the network executive judges (Susie Fogelson, the other half, wasn’t there), and was exactly the same as he is on TV, insightful and extremely affable.

We talked about the show, and he said that he actually auditioned to be a judge, which is remarkable–and makes sense, since we know what happens when network executives just put themselves on TV. Bob also corrected my misconception about the show’s success rate: Bob said last season’s winner, Aaron McCargo Jr., has one of the top-rated show on weekends, which he noted is a block of time equivalent to prime-time for the network. And Amy Finley’s show did well, but, of course, she decided to opt out from TV after its first season.

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